Film: Brief Thoughts on The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is about a girl who falls in love with a mermaid creature. It contains some of the most recognizable hallmarks of Del Toro’s work:
Fantastical monsters who are social outsiders
A person who is disabled/socially isolated and who lives in their own world
A sexually perverse adult world filled with senseless violence
I am a big fan of Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth while I find the rest of his work not that great. I found that Crimson Peak, Chronos, and Hellboy relied on tired cliches and the set design was tacky. The Shape of Water is worse than Pan’s Labyrinth but better than his other films.
The Art Gallery of Ontario has a Guillermo Del Toro exhibition, and on opening day Guillermo was there signing books. Lined up around the block was hordes of pre-teens with Jack Skeleton t-shirts and badly dyed hair. Del Toro and Tim Burton have very similar demographics, as both directors portray young characters concerned with darkness, fantasy worlds/the imagination, and being a social outcast (themes that speak to an adolescent audience). The exhibition itself was interesting, but I find that Del Toro’s auteur status is perhaps a little exaggerated..
Since it is a Del Toro movie, the mermaid looks more like a humanoid-fish-monster than Ariel. That doesn’t stop the mute female protagonist from falling in love with it. This was a strange romance: the mermaid possessed considerable intelligence, it learned some words in sign language for example, but it didn’t demonstrate enough intelligence to have a personality. Koko the gorilla exhibits more intelligence than the mermaid, and yet a movie about having sex with Koko would never make it into movie theaters. In this sense, this movie is a lesson in anthropomorpizing: how a lonely young woman falls in love with a non-human monster. The love that she feels is based on a few words in sign language, deeply meaningful staring, and the sharing of hard boiled eggs (my dog does most of these). The difference in (expressed) cognition (which should be a deal breaker) is overlooked for the masculine shape of the mermaid. He is 6’3 with broad shoulders and a narrow waist – the fact that his expressed intelligence is slightly higher than my dog’s doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he looks like a man – the rest can be projected.
Del Toro’s work is like a classic fairy tale – two people fall in love for no discernible reason: the trials and tribulations they go througg, the narrative arc, is what’s important. The inconclusive ending, the dream sequences, all point to a fairy tale imagining. The characters were not emotionally compelling and the violence felt slapstick and detached (like an 8 year old’s attempt to gross you out). The plot’s development felt disjointed – we never find out the villains motives or an explanation of who he is. The dialogue in the car dealership was excellent however, if a somewhat cliché use of the “fancy car = american dream” trope.
This is what Del Toro does in all of his movies, he makes two dimensional characters with two dimensional relationships and he sets them on their courses. If his plastic set design and heavy handed color scheme were removed, I think the story would have been greatly enhanced.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a better fairy tale. In fact, it was just a better movie. And yet despite these criticisms I enjoyed the film, and consider it his second-best work to date.